Helplines have become an essential part of customer facing call centres. Dedicated helplines are generally used by consumers who seek advice and guidance about your company’s products or services; queries tend to be typically more technical than standard customer service calls. Listed below are 6 key questions, PCMS believe you should be asking your helpline provider.
1. What is your speciality?
Working with a provider who is a specialist in your field adds a different dimension to the service. A specialist brings an intuitive understanding to the helpline, offering advice on how to overcome challenges and has experience on how to make the service the best for your budget. We work with retailers providing everything from helplines, product recalls to technical product support. This is not to say you should discount a provider who is outside of your usual industry sector. For example, a car manufacturer may look to a retail specialist for helpline support as they are still retailing a product.
2. What are your opening times?
The reactive nature of an outsourced helpline means your service provider should be able to answer queries when your customers want to ask them. The 24/7 nature of retail means this is just as likely at 8pm as it is at 9am. Is your provider able to match, at the very least, the opening hours of your stores? Can your provider offer you the level of weekend support you require?
3. How will your relationship with IT be managed?
The outsourcing relationship won’t work if your service provider is unable to access the necessary systems for CRM, logging and information. This will inevitably lead to gaps in the service and poor customer experience. If the provider isn’t able to manage the IT relationship in house, you need to understand what SLAs, KPIs, etc their provider is working to and what the penalties are for not adhering to them. You will also need to consider what level of management information your vendor is able to provide you with and how effective this information will be when building or reviewing your business strategy.
4. What resolution rates are you working to?
Ideally a helpline should be able to quote what their first call resolution rate is. If the service is more complex, say managing product recalls or assisting the set up of electronic goods, then does the vendor offer 2nd line support to manage more complex queries, which in retail, can involve multiple departments and business streams? With resolution rates, your vendor should also provide information on SLAs for answering contacts and KPIs on quality management. For those new to the contact centre industry balancing SLAs with budget can be challenging. Your vendor should be able to make recommendations based on your needs and budget.
5. Can I have disaster recovery?
Disaster recovery is not just limited to being able to trade when the worst happens. Most retailers don’t have a day to day need for a product recall solution. But like car insurance and life insurance, a disaster recovery solution is worth its weight in gold when the worst happens. Manufacturers and retailers need to be prepared to act fast when setting up a helpline for product recalls. With space and resources at a premium, retailers can find a simple, and affordable, solution which can call the troops to action should a disaster occur.
Outsourcing can be a difficult decision to make; if you need help deciding if it is the right route for your business or to find out more tips on looking for the right helpline provider, call our Contact Centre manager on +44 (0)24 7669 4455.
One of the questions we get asked regularly is “what’s so different about a helpdesk?” It is a fair point; in some ways it is just another contact centre – managing inbound and outbound telephone calls, emails, white mail and online activity. There are some particular characteristics that helpdesks have that determine how they can be implemented:
1. It’s ‘cases’ not ‘contacts’
There is a much higher incidence of back-and-forth communication between customer and advisor in helpdesks than most call centres. In IT service desks the customer may need to go away and test something and return with results. However, in contact centres there is no end-to-end tracking, which means the customer has to explain their situation repeatedly and rely on the judgement of each advisor. In a well-run service desk, case information is readily available to everyone and the next action is clearly defined. Until the customer says so, the case isn’t closed. Helpdesks need to monitor elapsed time from creation to closure of a case, not just statistics on individual contacts. Contact centres that rely on operational systems such as email and telephone, will not be able report on cases.
2. The clock is ticking
Calls to most other contact centres have a mix of light and shade – there will be complaints but there will also be orders and general requests for information. Although first call resolution is growing in importance it is still often not the key metric. In helpdesks almost every call will be from a customer whose product is not working. The consequence could be a returned product, reputational risk or even a health and safety issue. How long it takes to diagnose and fix the problem in the customer’s eyes is crucial. Most contact centres are focusing on individual skillsets being worked. The helpdesk has another dimension – the different escalation levels and time elapsed.
3. The bill keeps rising but escalation is important
Contact centres are the lowest cost channel in helpdesks. The more a helpdesk can fix, the less requirement there is for more expensive technical resource. The efficiency and accuracy of a helpdesk has a direct impact on the availability of more highly-skilled and more expensive resource. Failure to fix a problem to a customer’s satisfaction can result in a costly return too.
4. Data management is vital
In helpdesks, the first few calls can be indicative of a much bigger problem. A helpdesk that can quickly identify commonality between problems and notify manufacturing plants or suppliers can quickly avoid costly recalls and potentially life-threatening manufacturing faults. Capture of call reason codes and analysis is good practice in all contact centres. In the helpdesk it is crucial to assist with root cause analysis which will prevent much bigger problems and greatly reduce call handling time.
5. Knowledge management is king
In helpdesks there are many symptoms, many possible solutions and many problems. In a generic contact centre new employees can slowly become more proficient over time. In a help desk even the newest employee is expected to have all the answers by the customer. A good knowledge base that gives every advisor the latest information and the best decision-making can have a disproportionately large impact on case closure, customer satisfaction and cost.
6. Forecasting is a dark art
Most contact centres are forecastable based on seasonality, time-of-day trends and campaign activity. By its very nature, help desk activity is less predictable. Forecasting and planning is at a premium. There is always a trend or pattern – it can just be harder to find. The driver for overall volume may be units sold, firmware upgrade dates, temperature, weather conditions, licence renewals etc. and getting hold of the right data may be a challenge. Operational plans need to be flexible too with some thought on working patterns, flexible contracts, how overtime is managed and opening times to give the greatest agility in responding to the unexpected.
In summary, helpdesks are a subset of contact centres. Many of the same principles apply but the drivers may be different and helpdesks rely on a supporting infrastructure of case management, workflow and knowledge management tools.
We’ve all been there, the sudden realisation that the short term blip is now the long term problem. You look out across the contact centre floor and take a gulp as you realise there aren’t enough people and you are already struggling. You look back at the email from your colleagues in marketing which is apologetic but still shows a re-forecast that is 30% higher due to the success of the current campaign. You open the next email which tells you that logistics are going to struggle for the next two weeks because of it. Time to pull on your spandex Super(wo)man outfit and perform miracles with a limited budget. So what do you do?
#1 Create a realistic forecast. The first thing is to go back to basics and re-forecast. As quickly as possible you need to identify the shortfall and the impact of it – what is going to happen tomorrow and the day after. You need to address the short term before turning to the longer term issues. What your colleagues are relying on is not “it can’t be done” but rather “it’s going to be tough for the next couple of days but this is what we are doing”. Remember to allow for the failure now in the forecast. All the unanswered calls and missed deliveries are going to create additional work.
#2 Take it seriously. The first potential mistake is not to take it seriously. The decisions you make immediately determine whether this is a one week problem or something with a legacy for months. Occasionally colleagues do get their numbers wrong but the assumption should always be that they are correct. Over the next few days you are going to need the support of your team. If you lose your existing resource and experience through expecting too much of them, without support, everything which follows is going to be that much harder. If you ignore a forecast which turns out to be right, they are going to be swamped for a long time with unhappy customers in huge numbers and it will inevitably lead to sickness and leavers.
#3 The costs are the costs. You also need to be very clear on your costs and opportunity costs. When you have done your re-forecasting it may seem that there is a huge amount of expenditure required which seems exorbitant. The point is that the number is big because of expected increased sales – there is going to be a payoff to offset against it. Don’t try and take shortcuts and prejudge how your expenditure requests will be greeted.
#4 Protect the short term. Before addressing what happens next think about what you are going to do right now. There are a number of short term actions which will minimise the impact at the moment:
- Call avoidance – are there any messages which could be played to all callers which would avert them needing to speak to the advisors? Can the field reps get involved with their customers? Is there a PR message which could go out? Can the website be changed to reduce customer’s expectations on delivery lead times? Most importantly don’t have advisors making false promises that are only going to increase workload later on.
- Increasing capacity – Can any back office work be held back for a couple of days? Can other parts of the business contribute any resource? Is there any TOIL or overtime which could be used? Do you have an outsourced partner that could take a larger share of work in the short term?
- Improving efficiency – ensure that call control is observed and that unnecessary call-backs aren’t promised.
#5 Plan the medium term. If the numbers are large you need to consider spreading the effort and risk by using outsourcers. Ideally this would have been done before the peak hits but some of the best outsourcing partnerships are forged through Blitz spirit. When there is time to bring new staff in how are you going to deploy them to best effect? The perfect solution finds a way of putting new staff on to the lowest skillset – whether this is with and outsourcer or in-house. If you are using an outsourcer you need to make sure you clearly define the inputs and outputs. While your standard induction process may take two weeks you can create a streamlined version which will give the training to get a specific job done right now – you are not looking for new employees for life. Remember to give them the support they need through floorwalking. Remember also to plan for inefficiency during their early days. Finally, allow for attrition and inaccuracy in forecasting. You have one shot to correct the situation and it is far easier to reduce numbers than to increase them.
#6 Plan for the long term and don’t do it again. Assuming this works, you can look back with some fondness on a job well done under pressure. Your team will have bonded and you have some great war stories to tell on team nights out. This doesn’t mean you want to repeat the exercise. You need to document the lessons learned and make sure you walk through the scenario with your marketing and logistics colleagues. They need to understand the full impact of what can seem like trivial decisions – not least because the full cost needs to be fully understood.
The overriding challenge is to remember that peaks are just exaggerated Business As Usual. The moment you panic or take short term measures with no consideration of what comes next you run the risk that the situation will become self-generating with customer service issues created by your actions rather than the initial cause. It is often worth taking a little extra time to think clearly and even to take some of the pain at the start rather than look for the quick fix.
For further advice and guidance on what to do when it has already gone wrong, speak to our Contact Centre Manager.
Outsources can do everything you do in-house unless there are some fundamental process barriers. Generally outsources have a hunger to prove their capability, are not bound by “how things have always been done”, and may have better technology to do it with. The challenge is whether they can do so in a cost-effective manner which results in a financial benefit for you. Fundamentally, for it to work for both parties the outsourcer needs to be able to make sufficient profit advantage over an in-house solution to allow a margin and still offer a return on investment. Assuming the business case stacks up the next question is about what to outsource?
How do I know what to outsource?
To help decide on what to outsource, you first need to define ‘core business; these are the activities that you would never want to lose close control of. These tend to align to key business risks, differentiators, regulation or confidentiality. Examples may be executive office complains, major sales, health and safety issues or product design. They are characterised by financial significance, intellectual property or strategic decision making. These are the activities that may be capable of being outsourced but, because they are the fundamentals of your business success, you don’t want to.
Often we find that highly-skilled people are doing mundane and lower-skilled activities for most of their working day. They really come into their own when an unexpected situation or an escalation comes about. Re-engineering processes to ensure that the people with the right skills (or technology) do the right jobs is one of the easiest ways to make outsourcing work for your business.
Before even considering outsourcing you need to understand what is truly core for your business. You can then arrange your resourcing to maximise the return on your in-house investment while using partners to best effect.
Is it too soon to be thinking about your Christmas game plan? The winning strategy, suggests Paul Miller, is to plan for success and manage with agility.
Christmas is fast approaching. For many retailers, Christmas is a one-off opportunity to make hay while the sun shines.
The farming analogy is a pretty good one. Just as farmers have to face the uncertainty of weather and the constraints of daylight when deciding when to harvest their crops, retailers face the dilemma of having to commit their buying, merchandising, recruitment and customer services resources well before they are sure just how the season is going to turn out.
Aim too low and customers may be left unsupported, items will end up being out-of-stock at a critical time and marketing resource may be wasted through lack of backup. Aim too high and potentially this means committing to higher expenditure which may not be recouped through the peak period.
Forecasting for the Christmas season
The only thing that is certain is that your forecast will be wrong. What you do to recover the situation is crucial. Contact centres need a drill.
No matter whether volumes of activity are higher or lower, you need to be able to swing the team into action to make the right decisions. The England World Cup Winning Rugby team of 2003 always had a scoreboard and a game clock in their meeting rooms. Clive Woodward would regularly set the game clock and the scoreboard, point to a member of the team at random and ask what they would do under the circumstances – “You are 12-10 behind with five minutes to play, it’s raining and you have a penalty five yards inside your own half – what do you do?” He was trying to get the whole team thinking in the same way. No matter what circumstances they were facing he wanted them to think clearly and make the right decisions.
We can set the game clock for Christmas now. Although it seems like a long time to go the time will soon erode. Some of the bigger decisions will take a long time to implement. If your forecast demands more capacity than you have there are some serious decisions to be made. In all probability, the first step in getting ready for next Christmas is the day after you recovered from last Christmas. Did you make a note of all those learnings? Did you remember what the workload looked like each of the last few days before Christmas? Did you make a note of the trading results which drove the activity?
The purpose is to ensure that you have some kind of comparative benchmark. If results are up 15% this year compared to 2013 – even in August – the best assumption may be that they we will be 15% up at Christmas. Is the whole supply chain capable of delivering at that level? How many extra staff will you need? Of course Christmas is the peak for everyone; it will be harder to recruit staff when everyone else is trying to. If you are successful, will you have time to interview them, have room to train them, have enough headsets, PCs and software licences to accommodate them? If the answer to any of those questions is “no” then you need to begin thinking about business cases or negotiating and outsourced partnership.
Executing your Christmas game plan
With three months to go you will begin executing the plan in earnest. Recruiting large numbers of staff is very different from recruiting in smaller numbers. All resources are stretched and so it is important to be efficient even in these early stages. There may be some parts of the process that you delegate to agencies which you would conduct yourself at any other time of year. The decision making process about hiring needs to be short and sharp so that classrooms are full and the required staffing numbers are met. Don’t forget to allow extra for attrition – you will lose some people no matter how hard you try and recruitment is even harder to carry out at peak. Better to carry a little extra headcount going in to the height of the season.
Once the work is underway the Christmas game plan is more important than ever.
If volumes are higher than anticipated you need to think about the decisions you want your operational teams to make:
- Do you try and use IVR to avoid some calls?
- Do you switch back office staff to answering telephones?
- Do you offer overtime – and, if so, at what rate?
- What can you do to control call durations?
- Do you prioritise one call type over another?
If volumes are lower than expected how do you control costs?
This is often the winning strategy – plan for success and then manage with agility:
- How do you assess performance of individuals?
- How can you route contacts to the most qualified person to deal with them?
- What order do you release staff during quiet times to maintain morale?
- What other duties do you give to staff to keep them occupied?
During normal times operationally these are easy decisions but under pressure mistakes can be made. Following Sir Clive Woodward’s mantra ensures that the basic everyday operations carry on working regardless of the surrounding circumstances.
The most common business pressures are associated with peak trading periods. New staff will come into the business on a temporary basis but ideally you want the most trained, most expensive resource handling the most challenging, greatest-contributing activities. Rather than splitting everything on a proportional basis you want to separate out the mundane non-core activity so that new or external staff can do it and leave the core activities to you. This takes some planning. In contact centre terms are you able to separate the key customers from the rest? If everything comes into a central post room how can you easily identify the contents without a big sorting activity? A little preparation in advance maximises your choices when it comes to peak.
- Use of non-geographic telephone numbers. Non-geographic telephone numbers (0800, 0844, 0845 etc.) lift the routing of telephone calls from your telephone switch into the network. Core activity can be separated from non-core through the number dialled, PIN number access, calling number identification or IVR selection.
- Using Freepost addresses. This is the postal equivalent of the non-geographic phone number. Different types of post can be routed to different locations rather than a single central post room.
- Using pre-formatted email. Many websites offer customer contact via email but just capture the customer’s email address and content of their query. By formatting the query with customer number and the nature of the query from a drop-down selection the emails can be routed to different mail boxes without the customer being aware.
- Having pre-printed stationery. This may seem like an unnecessary expense but it allows easy identification of forms (which often involve orders or application forms) without the envelope having to be opened. Cost of processing is affected by the number of times correspondence needs to be handled and the amount of technology which can be applied.
- Creating escalation routes. Thinking in advance about where escalated or misrouted phone calls, emails and correspondence should be sent can pay big dividends. Think about setting up escalation email addresses and contact centre telephone numbers to route the traffic through.
Regardless of whether you are considering outsourcing or not these are important things to understand. Under pressure these are the very things you need to make sure work smoothly for business survival through peak trading periods.
This may sound like a really obvious question at first glance but all is not as it seems. You have to take the time to understand volumes. Over the years we have learnt a lot about how to gather the information we need and how to get to the data underneath the emotion. Peaks are most definitely in the eye of the beholder.
There is a real practical reason to discriminate between a predictable peak and an unpredictable surge. While a mail order business can ramp up in preparation for an absolute increase in volumes for Christmas, the emergency services can never prepare for the surge in communications associated with a major incident. From a planning perspective the two are quite different. However…
Some “surges” are predictable.
The cause of the surge is the key. There are weather-related businesses which experience large increases in volumes. Windscreen repair firms will get more callouts when the frosts start to hit. Gardening supply companies will see a real upturn when the first sunny weekend of the year arrives. Of course, if we could predict the weather with any degree of accuracy we would be the champions in the weather forecasting industry. What we can take from it is the overall pattern even though we can’t pinpoint the exact timing. This allows planners to prepare contingencies.
Business peaks are not contact centre peaks
Sometimes customers confuse busy trading periods with peaks. Seeing other parts of the business recruit and anxiety levels rising (both for customers and in-house) can ‘feel’ busier than it really is. Warehouses will be buying stock and busily storing it for a long time before the orders start coming in. It can be easy to fall into the trap of over-recruiting and, because nothing went wrong as a result, carry that model forward next year.
This is just a basic insight into the peaks and troughs experienced in contact centres, how you manage them will help set you apart from competitors.
Read more to find out about peaks and how to manage them effectively.
Recruiting for a contact centre can be a difficult task; the following points look at the best ways to tackle the process and how to hold a successful assessment centre.
1. Define your ideal employee
Will the right person just appear? What if the right person appears but they can’t work the hours you need them to? Will you be willing to change your requirements? What if the person is the right candidate but doesn’t have any experience? Are you going to be able to spend the time developing them or do you need someone who can hit the ground running? Define your own needs first before running the assessment day; you can then make the choice of the right candidates that suit your company.
2. Get the number right
How many people should you invite to an assessment day? Should it equal the number of available job opportunities? Of course not! On the day someone will always drop out, they’ve got another job, changed their minds or have some other reason they just can’t make it. So you are already one person down. Then there will be those who sadly aren’t the right fit, don’t have the right skills. How many are you really left with? If you need to fill roles quickly then you might be stuck making choices based on need rather than then want.
Why do observations matter? We always look for candidates who display the right skills and behaviour and this can be seen better when the candidates are interacting with others. Remember it isn’t always what they say; it’s how they say it that counts.
4. Group tasks
You need to see how a candidate reacts in a group situation to allow you to see how they will handle different situations. Whether that is with a customer or with colleagues, it will test their reasoning skills and how they handle a pressured situation.
5. Personality is key
When recruiting you need to understand how an employee’s personality can be vital to a job role. The loudest person in the room may be the most confident, and although confidence is required when working on the telephone, it’s not the only personality trait required. A quieter person will have a well-thought out and reasoned idea that can be delivered in a calm and measured fashion. Think about the service you want to deliver to your customer and what personality traits are important to you.
When running an assessment day, don’t underestimate the importance of planning. We hope these pointers will help you throughout your recruitment process, for any more information about working with a successful contact centre contact PCMS
If you aren’t used to service review meetings with your existing contact centre provider you need to get used to them. Contact centre service review meetings are the backbone of the service and should give you the information you need to know about how the service is being run. If in doubt, here are four questions to questions to ask to get you started.
1. What can be improved?
Don’t be put off by this question a service can always be improved. Within the PCMS contact centre we have ISO 9001 accreditation and one of the cornerstones of this is continuous improvement. This means we are always looking for methods to improve our services in some way. What actions is your contact centre taking to improve your service?
2. Can I visit?
Relationships with your service provider will always be strengthened if you and they can put faces to names. How are they finding the service? What surprises have they had? Visit them and get to know the team.
3. Can I listen to calls?
You might be surprised what you learn from this. Listening to contact centre calls will help you understand exactly what service is being delivered to your customers, the type of query your customer’s are calling with and the challenges your agents and customers face.
4. Do our strategies match?
This one definitely needs to be reviewed on a regular basis. If your contact centre doesn’t know what your strategies are as a business how can you be certain your service delivery matches your needs? For example your strategy could be to increase sales; if the contact centre isn’t aware of this you could be missing out on vital income streams.
The above questions should give you an initial insight into the service being provided by your contact centre.
To discuss how a successful relationship with your outsourced contact centre can transform your business, call PCMS on +44 (0)24 7669 4455
The traditional view of outsourced contact centres is they offer economies of scale and long term strategic partnerships. There are many examples of successful relationships between businesses and outsource providers, that have made significant business impact for companies around the world.
For many who are considering outsourcing for the first time, the well-established large contact centre can seem a long way from the day-to-day reality. As a gateway into using outsourcers, UK businesses are realising that contact centre outsourcing can serve a pragmatic purpose and provide a fantastic return on investment in the short term. These examples take advantage of inherent benefits of outsourcers in tackling everyday problems.
- A challenge for in-house contact centres can be the inertia from having done the same things for years. Most people resist change; especially if it affects their working patterns or tests their knowledge and takes them out of their comfort zone. Outsourcers on the other hand thrive on change and making things happen. Dealing with changing consumer behaviours, signposting them to the preferred channels, and educating them so they use them again takes a lot of effort. The customer service world on the other side of the change may be more efficient. It will also be different and this can cause internal departments to dig their heels in and find ways of slowing down progress. When change has to happen it often takes an outsourcer to drive it through.
- Launching new products and services is risky and challenging. It can feel like a leap into the unknown. Launching a new website seems straightforward but without knowing what customers will want to discuss as a result it can be difficult to forecast and to train contact centre advisors accordingly. Using an outsourcer who has done it all before and brings their expertise to the table can be a great way of avoiding making the classic mistakes. Some organisations will use contact centre outsourcers for a finite period of time – almost like a scouting mission – to launch and bed in a new service before bringing it back in-house when the dust has settled.
- People like to win and competition drives up performance in all walks of life. One application of outsourcing is to set up a competitor for the internal contact centre which may not otherwise have the opportunity to compete. In pursuit of performance the champion-challenger encourages innovation and engenders flexibility and agility in both parties.
- Resistance to change also applies to working patterns. Although customer demand may require extended opening times and weekend opening it can be very challenging, unreliable and very expensive to persuade in-house contact centres to fill the gap. Outsourcers have the reverse problem – they already have staff covering the shifts but are looking for a partner to help make them more efficient. The same may be true for short term peaks. Outsourcers have a range of customers who have different peak seasons and times of day. Most retailers will have a steady build up through to Christmas, holiday and furniture companies will peak immediately afterwards. Others may have a very distinctive call arrival pattern each day with a huge skew towards early morning, lunchtime or early evening. While recruiting and administering a range of shift patterns and training for a short period of time may be a daunting challenge, it may be significantly easier for an outsourcer who aggregates the demands for different clients.
- Setting up or managing your own contact centre is not cheap. The technology can make all the difference to productivity but it can cost a lot. Licences for hundreds of users and regular upgrades to latest versions tend to have a sizeable price tag. The changes demand bigger networks, integration and reintegration with other systems and a support infrastructure. Physical space can be a challenge at some times of year and then not be an issue for the next few months. Little wonder companies turn to outsourcers to overcome the large capital investment projects – after all they’ve already made the investment and are looking for ways to get a return on their investment.
Outsourcing doesn’t need to be a major project, contact PCMS to find out how it can be a highly effective tactical tool to solve some of the difficult everyday problems. Call us on +44(0)24 7669 4455 or email email@example.com